Professor Nicholas Block sees public awareness as an essential part of scientific education

June 4, 2018

Nicholas Block
Nicholas Block, Assistant Professor, Biology

The biology at the center of one of Professor Nicholas Block’s interests is right outside your window – sometimes even clinging to your window screen ­– and offers a perfect lens through which to see the importance of science to our everyday lives.

Three years after a 2015 NPR segment on a major winter moth invasion put Block in the media spotlight, the insect responsible for defoliating millions of shade trees is in the news again. With the help of entomologists, a parasitic fly from Germany that preys only on the winter moth caterpillar has slowly been gaining a foothold in the region and it is now possible that the winter moth will be eradicated in the near future.

Then and now, Block sees the media attention the moths received as a net positive in so much as it gets the general public to think more about science.

 It is particularly important, he adds, at a time when the value our society places on scientific inquiry and data—and the funding that typically supports science—is called into question. “Science communication has always been important to me—and a key element of that knowledge-sharing is helping people to see the role of science in understanding the world around us,” he says. “Public perception of science seems to be on a downhill slope, but it’s important that we continue to support the role of evidence-based learning and decision-making.”

 In November 2015, when residents of the region began to notice moths blanketing buildings, cars and more, it prompted many questions, such as “Where did they come from?” and “Why were they here?”

These were questions Block, assistant professor of biology, was well poised to answer.

With background in evolutionary biology and birds, he had recently become more interested in moths and butterflies. He and his students have conducted research on dragonflies and damselflies in nearby Blue Hills Reservation that may help us better understand global warming.

Martin McGovern, Stonehill’s director of communications and media relations, became aware of Block’s moth expertise and featured him in a news story and an edition of Stonehill Alumni Magazine. He also pitched an interview with Block to WGBH, a Boston NPR radio affiliate. And a radio segment was born.

 The resulting piece, which aired as part of WGBH reporter Edgar Herwick’s “Curiosity Desk” segment, was accompanied by an online article on the topic. In them, Block explained where the moths came from (Europe, about 15 years ago), how they became so plentiful in the region (they have no native parasites), whether they do damage (the adults don’t, but in their caterpillar stage they defoliate trees) and what can be done about them (bring in a parasitic fly that eliminates the caterpillars). The last part, of course, is what has once again drawn media attention to the issue. Block, referenced in the piece as “something of a winter moth geek”— considered a compliment in his circle—also connected Herwick with a University of Massachusetts professor who at the time was the only local expert working on that parasitic-fly solution.

If the media spotlight did not win Block instant fame among students, his comments were definitely noticed by members of some local internet groups where he shares information, who asked him if he was the “same” Nick Block they’d heard. He has also been asked to lead nature walks, during which he points out species of interest, at local conservation properties. All of these opportunities, he says, help to bolster Stonehill’s standing in the scientific community. “Our Biology Department is strong and rigorous,” he pointed out, “and anything that makes people more aware of that is helpful.”